And They Always Told Us Winter Kills

Revealing my age as much as my musical taste by referring to lyrics from the band Yaz, I’m playing a song on my mind’s record player as I rest my bones to pen this article: “Winter Kills”.  Today is the official first day of Spring, today is also the official closing of my now ten year old wine shop.  As the folks who haven’t stepped foot in the place for months roll out of here with cases of 40% off wine stacked 3, 4 and 5 cases high wish me luck for the future, I reluctantly bid them good tidings and attempt to focus on the task at hand.  Liquidating the inventory is paramount and nothing, especially not my personal feelings of utter betrayal, will fail that goal.

The final chapter in this ridiculous novel I’ve called my professional life for this past decade opened with a series of personal notes to respected authors through my social networking site.  I had decided that 2009 would find me chasing my dream of ultimately and finally becoming the next great American wine author and I had contacted these folks in my attempts to locate a potential set of contacts, perhaps even a publisher.  After some honest, while discouraging news, I had an initial plan in mind that could possibly, in time, lead to my being published.  I would offer to write as many free articles covering the wine world as my neighborhood paper would accept, using these articles to promote my work to larger papers as time permitted.

With plan in mind, I eagerly walked to the curb one morning, quite early, while little M watched her morning shows, dew still resting on the grass, the West U street lights yet to dim from the night before, air crisp and my mind filled with excitement.  This was a good morning for me, one of the few in a sea of difficult days of late, for the past several months had been filled to overflow with far more than our fair share of disaster and disappointment.  Yet I walked the lawn this morning, once again with resolve and vigor, for little M has a way, with that brilliant smile and the way she calls for me in the morning of keeping me focused on looking to the future.

The neighborhood paper I unwrapped that morning, naturally, is known as the West U Examiner.  The writing is as most small neighborhood papers would be and breaking news for this publication generally runs to the campy sort.  But this morning’s issue had sprawled across its cover the story of the signing of a lease.  A lease that would surely change the face of the liquor – and wine – business in West U for good. 

West U is the pet name for The City of West University Place.  This is a city within a city.  We have our own police department, water department, shopping district, schools, churches, you name it.  West U, a proud, beautiful little city, is filled with gorgeous homes, parks, playgrounds and a sense of safety and security long gone from the vast majority of places one finds in the big cities across America.  In short, this place called West U is small town America.

But even small town America is not immune to the severe downturn facing the country today.  There have been so many large stores, once successful and thriving here in West U, forced to close their doors based on parent company decisions, that literally hundreds of thousands of square feet of lease space are resting without tenants.  One such location, in the heart of one sector of West U, was once the home of a nearly 30,000 square foot Linens & Things.  The entire chain, nationally, recently closed, and the West U location was not spared the shuttering of the doors.

My little neighborhood paper, one I thought to be my potential avenue for salvation, right there before my weary morning eyes, had published across its cover the signing of the new lease for the former Linens & Things location.  Spec’s will soon be opening a 30,000 square foot monstrosity less than a few miles from my boutique wine shop, right here in the heart of small town America.  What’s more, what’s worse, they’ll be opening right across the street from this city’s original fine wine and liquor company: Richard’s. 

Richard’s was established in the West U, nearby, and closely surrounding, affluent neighborhoods by Mr. Richard Trabulsi in 1950.  I never had the pleasure of knowing the original Richard, but I very recently met his silver haired, genteel son, Richard Jr., now seemingly approaching retirement age yet very much still active in the only business he practices, law.  I came to the conclusion that a meeting between our companies was now eminent, having read the news of the impending opening of the latest mall sized Spec’s across the street from Richard’s.  I phoned him one morning and asked for a meeting.

My mind is literally overflowing with myriad ideas and concepts for bringing the once glamorous and market leading Richard’s forward, returning that company to its rightful spot in the minds and pocket books of not only the residents of West U, but the generation “next-ers” that Houston enjoys as its dominating inhabitants.  The one barrier to launching these ideas, obviously is the required marriage of two corporations, mine and Richard’s.  My meeting with Mr. Trabulsi was designed to place that offer on the proverbial table, to gauge the man’s temperature and to see if a union could be forged. 

The meeting, so it seemed, went swimmingly.  The talks were casual, the mood was engaging and friendly and Richard was genuinely, in his words, interested.  He talked of feeling the pressure to his business as “Spec’s has infringed on his long-standing, rightful territories”, and he discussed his feelings on the subject of Costco Liquor entering his market.  He praised my unique, original and thought provoking marketing style, admitting that many of my methods were foreign yet intriguing to him, and he told me that now that he and I were engaging in discussions that “thoughts of a union were seriously on his mind.”  I exited our meeting with a strong sense of community bonding in my belly and awaited our next steps.

It took only the course of a rainy week-end for my last straws of hope to go up in flames.  I returned Richard’s call on the following Tuesday morning, catching him off guard as he was walking the floor of the State Senate in Austin – as I stated, Richard practices law, exclusively, his family’s wine and spirits business has not been a part of his daily routine for many, many years (if ever).  He politely asked me to phone his assistant in Houston, and with thoughts of scheduling a follow-up meeting, I did just as he asked. 

Richard Trabulsi never once stepped foot in my wine shop.  To the best of my knowledge he may have never even driven by.  He certainly never offered the opportunity for exploration of the ideas and concepts for rectifying his Father’s failing spirits business.  Failing?  How do I define failing?  Richard sold half of his family’s stores to Spec’s just a few years back, resulting in the closing of those stores.  And now, as the word on the streets has it, the store on Bissonnet, the West U store, that Richard’s across from the mall sized Spec’s about to open is being considered for liquidation, too.  That, to me, after nearly 60 years in operation, may be described as failing, or at the very least, as giving up.

But what Richard Trabulsi did do, in his cowardly way, was have his assistant inform me that Richard simply didn’t see my company as a fit with his.  There just wasn’t a way, so the assistant translated to me, for the great Richard’s and the boutique to ever come together.  I thought to myself how interesting to sell out to the machine while never, even for a moment, considering a way to bring the light back to your organization.  I hung up the phone, without rebuttal, and began dusting off the plans, long stashed in the depths of my filing cabinet, for a winery license of my own.

Houston simply isn’t a boutique kind of town, I’ve learned the lesson the hard way.  In 1999, I took this bull full square on, riding him bare back, guns blazing, teeth gnawing on his wide stretched horns.  I was going to be The Kid, the savior, the one who would be king.  My business plan called for a whole collection of these boutique shops by 2004, populating Houston like a newly wed, birthing girl of the Irish-Catholic persuasion gone wild.  Each of my 5 children would be the most beautiful and unique specimens this provincial town had ever experienced.  The dream was real, thought I, and nothing would stand in my way.

It’s a beautiful Spring day today.  Sunny, flowers blooming like mad as far as the eye can see here in West U.  The world I called home, the professional one at least, on the outside, as the people walk about and soak in the sun, appears so very much alive.

But on this Spring day, this first day of Spring 2009, there is a very palpable sense of death in the air as well….

Christopher Massie
Diplome D’Honneur de Sommelier